Soros Foundation to continue despite setbacks

The Soros Foundation has said it will continue its work in the region and has dismissed suggestions it was suffering from an image problem with the authorities in Central Asia, where three out of four of its country-based foundations have encountered difficulties in their operations.

"I don't really feel it's a public relations problem. I can't really speculate on the nature of an authoritarian regime or its reactions," Laura Silber, senior policy adviser for the Soros Foundation and Open Society Institute (OSI), told IRIN from New York.

Her comments follow a report by a Turkish newspaper that Tajik President Imomali Rahmonov had accused some organisations, and in particular the Soros Foundation, of acting to destroy Tajikistan's unity.

Rahmonov reportedly raised the issue at the Tajikistan Democratic People's Party convention, which was closed to the press, the Istanbul-based Zaman newspaper said. The text of the president's speech was published in Tajikistan's Minbari Khalk newspaper, claiming that the Soros Foundation supported subversive radio stations and newspapers such as Varorud, Odamu Olam and Ruzi Nav. He went on to say, "The aim of these mass circulation media is to destroy the Tajikistan administration," the 30 December Zaman report added.

But according to Silber, the president later denied saying this, describing the report as "recycled".

"That's actually not a subject of concern to us, considering that President Rahmonov himself didn't say what he is being quoted as saying," the Soros Foundation official claimed.

However, given recent events in the region, perhaps more concern is exactly what is needed. Just last month, a branch of the Soros Foundation in Kazakhstan was charged with tax evasion by the authorities.

"It seems that the Kazakh government wants to close down the foundation," Dariusz Zietek, head of the Soros Foundation-Kazakhstan (SFK), told IRIN earlier from the commercial capital, Almaty, describing the event as politically motivated.

According to Kazakh financial officials, a criminal investigation was opened against the US-based foundation funded by billionaire Hungarian-born financier George Soros, after nonpayment of some US $400,000 in back taxes it owned since 2001, plus some $200,000 in penalties.

"As far as Kazakhstan is concerned, we're still holding out hope that the foundation can continue to operate, although there has been a pattern of harassment," Silber conceded.

In Uzbekistan, in April 2004, the Soros Foundation, which aims to promote open societies by shaping government policy and supporting education, media, public health, and human and women's rights, as well as social, legal and economic reform, was forced to close its operations after the Uzbek authorities refused to extend its registration, accusing it of trying to discredit the government's policies.

Such incidents are hardly new for the international foundation, currently active in more than 50 countries worldwide. In 1998, the foundation was forced out of Belarus, allegedly for using funds to finance the Belarusian opposition, the BBC reported.

Why the Soros Foundation might be facing difficulties in Central Asia is difficult to say. Some speculate that the authoritarian governments of the region might be concerned at the possibility of a Georgia-type revolution, a bloodless event in which some believe the Soros Foundation played a role.

Following independence and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the five Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have been ruled by five autocratic leaders - none of whom have demonstrated any real desire to relinquish any control, making any real progress in the area of human rights, civil society and democratic reform next to impossible.

But Silber adamantly denied any political agenda, stressing instead the foundation's desire to improve the welfare of the people in region. "The Soros Foundation is not funding any political or partisan activity. The foundations are not involved in pursuing any partisan or political activity," she claimed.

Each foundation in a country had a different set of priorities, determined by a board of eminent figures from that particular country, she explained, emphasising: "It's not something that we direct the foundations from New York."

"In Kazakhstan, they [the foundation] are working with the government, but also with civil society groups on helping to promote - for lack of a better word for it - international standards, for civil society, for looking at good governance, and to help make Kazakhstan into a more democratic state," Silber said.

Meanwhile, the call for real political change in the region cannot be denied. Just last month, a Kazakh opposition delegation travelled to Ukraine to study the methods used by supporters of opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko.

According to a member of the delegation, Tolen Tokhtasynov, the ideas of both Georgia's Rose Revolution and the Ukrainian protest movement were finding fertile ground in Kazakhstan ahead of its 2007 presidential election, a Radio Free Europe Report said.

[For more information on the Soros Foundation see: www.soros.org]